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B.1 About Processes

Unix is a multitasking operating system. Every task that the computer is performing at any moment—every user running a word processor program, for example—has a process. The process is the operating system's fundamental tool for controlling the computer.

Nearly everything that Unix does is done with a process. One process displays the characters login: on the user's terminal and reads the characters that the user types to log into the system. Another process spools PostScript to the laser printer. (If you don't have a PostScript-based printer, yet another process translates PostScript into whatever language your printer happens to use—for example, PCL.) On a workstation, a special process called the window server displays text in windows on the screen. (Another process called the window manager lets the user move those windows around.)

At any given moment, the average Unix operating system might be running anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred different processes. Large multiuser systems typically run hundreds to thousands of processes, as Unix runs at least one process for every user who is logged in, another process for every program that every user is running, another process for every hardwired terminal that is waiting for a new user, and a few dozen processes to manage servers and background tasks.

But regardless of whether you are responsible for security on a small system or a large one, understanding how processes work and the process lifecycle is vital to understanding security issues.

B.1.1 Processes and Programs

The goal of the Unix process system is to share resources (such as access to the CPU) among multiple programs while providing a high degree of isolation between individual instances of execution. Each executing process is given its own context, which is a private address space, a private stack, and its own set of file descriptors and CPU registers (including its own program counter). The underlying hardware and operating system software manage the contents of registers in such a way that each process views the computer's resources as its "own" while it is running.


In modern programming parlance, a thread is a flow of execution in a process. Most processes are single-threaded and manage only a single flow of execution. However, many Unix kernels (and programming libraries) support the creation of multiple threads in a single process. Each thread gets its own stack and registers, but shares most other resources, such as address space, with other threads in the same process. On some Unix operating systems, the system calls that create threads allow the programmer to choose which aspects of context are shared and which are private when a new thread is created.

In multithreaded programs, threads are often referred to as "lightweight processes." Because threads in the same process share so many more resources than separate processes, the kernel can switch much more quickly between the threads' contexts than it can between processes. This is especially useful in applications such as web servers, in which individual threads serving each web request can profitably share most of the process context.

On a single-processor system only one process at a time is actually running, of course; the operating system allows each process to run until it "blocks" because it requests information that is currently unavailable, because it explicitly waits for some other event to occur, or because it has exceeded its allowable amount of CPU time. Once a process blocks, the operating system turns over control to another process that is ready to run. The switching normally happens so fast as to give the illusion that they are all running concurrently. Multiprocessor computers can run several processes with true synchronicity, although they also swap execution contexts when there are more processes than processors.

Every Unix process (except perhaps the very first) is associated with a program. Programs are usually referred to by the names of the files in which they are kept. For example, the program that lists files is named /bin/ls, and the program that spools data to the printer is typically named /usr/lib/lpd.

Processes normally run a single program and then exit. However, a program can cause another program to run. In this case, the same process starts running another program.

There are three ways that a process can run executable code that is not stored in a file:

  • The process may have been specially crafted in a block of memory and then executed. This is the method that the Unix kernel uses to begin the first process when the operating system starts up. This usually happens only at startup.

  • The program's file can be deleted after its process starts up. In this case, the process's program is really stored in a file, but the file no longer has a name and cannot be accessed by any other processes. The file is deleted automatically when the process exits or runs another program.

  • A process can load additional machine code into its memory space and then execute it. This is the technique that is used by shared libraries, loadable object modules, and many "plug-in" architectures. This is also the technique that is used by many buffer overflow attacks.

Because there are many ways to dynamically modify the code that is executing in the address space of a process, you should not assume that the process that is running on your computer is the same as the program file from which it was loaded.

B.1.2 The ps Command

The ps command gives you a snapshot of all of the processes running at any given moment. ps tells you information about the running programs on your system, as well as which programs the operating system is spending its time executing.

Many system administrators routinely use the ps command to see why their computers are running so slowly; system administrators should also regularly use the command to look for suspicious processes. (Suspicious processes are any processes that you don't expect to be running. Methods of identifying suspicious processes are described in detail in earlier chapters.)

The top command is another popular program for viewing which processes are currently running. top prints an ASCII screen with a continuously updated view of the top-running processes, defined as those processes that are consuming the most CPU time (although other sorting rules, such as memory usage, are also available). Although top is an extremely useful command, you should not let it become a substitute for ps, as there are many important processes that will never appear in the output of the top command simply because they do not consume enough resources.

B.1.2.1 Listing processes with Solaris and other Unix systems derived from System V

The System V ps command will normally print only the processes that are associated with the terminal on which the program is being run. To list all of the processes that are running on your computer, you must run the program with the -ef options. The options are:


List all processes


Produce a full listing

For example:

sun.vineyard.net% /bin/ps -ef
    root     0     0 64   Nov 16 ?        0:01 sched
    root     1     0 80   Nov 16 ?        9:56 /etc/init -
    root     2     0 80   Nov 16 ?        0:10 pageout
    root     3     0 80   Nov 16 ?       78:20 fsflush
    root   227     1 24   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/saf/sac -t 300
    root   269     1 18   Nov 16 console  0:00 /usr/lib/saf/ttymon -g -    
    root    97     1 80   Nov 16 ?        1:02 /usr/sbin/rpcbind
    root   208     1 80   Nov 16 ?        0:01 /usr/dt/bin/dtlogin
    root    99     1 21   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/sbin/keyserv
    root   117     1 12   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/nfs/statd
    root   105     1 12   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/sbin/kerbd
    root   119     1 27   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/nfs/lockd
    root   138     1 12   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/autofs/automoun
    root   162     1 62   Nov 16 ?        0:01 /usr/lib/lpsched
    root   142     1 41   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/sbin/syslogd
    root   152     1 80   Nov 16 ?        0:07 /usr/sbin/cron
    root   169   162  8   Nov 16 ?        0:00 lpNet
    root   172     1 80   Nov 16 ?        0:02 /usr/lib/sendmail -q1h
    root   199     1 80   Nov 16 ?        0:02 /usr/sbin/vold
    root   180     1 80   Nov 16 ?        0:04 /usr/lib/utmpd
    root   234   227 31   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/saf/listen tcp
 simsong 14670 14563 13 12:22:12 pts/11   0:00 rlogin next
    root   235   227 45   Nov 16 ?        0:00 /usr/lib/saf/ttymon
 simsong 14673 14535 34 12:23:06 pts/5    0:00 rlogin next
 simsong 14509     1 80 11:32:43 ?        0:05 /usr/dt/bin/dsdm
 simsong 14528 14520 80 11:32:51 ?        0:18 dtwm
 simsong 14535 14533 66 11:33:04 pts/5    0:01 /usr/local/bin/tcsh
 simsong 14529 14520 80 11:32:56 ?        0:03 dtfile -session dta003TF
    root 14467     1 11 11:32:23 ?        0:00 /usr/openwin/bin/fbconso
 simsong 14635 14533 80 11:48:18 pts/12   0:01 /usr/local/bin/tcsh
 simsong 14728 14727 65 15:29:20 pts/9    0:01 rlogin next
    root   332   114 80   Nov 16 ?        0:02 /usr/dt/bin/rpc.ttdbserv
    root 14086   208 80   Dec 01 ?        8:26 /usr/openwin/bin/Xsun :0
 simsong 13121 13098 80   Nov 29 pts/6    0:01 /usr/local/bin/tcsh
 simsong 15074 14635 20 10:48:34 pts/12   0:00 /bin/ps -ef

Table B-1 summarizes the meaning of each field in this output.

Table B-1. Fields in ps output (System V)




Username or user ID the program is running as.


Process's identification number (see the next section).


Process ID of the process's parent process.


Processor utilization, which is an indication of how much CPU time the process is using at the moment.


Time or date when the process started executing.


Controlling terminal for the process. Processes with no controlling terminal display a "?" in this column.


Total amount of CPU time that the process has used.


Command that was used to start the process. More precisely, this column shows all of the command's arguments, beginning with argv[0], which is usually the command's name. Processes can, however, set argv[0] to other values (several network servers that spawn multiple processes, such as sendmail, change this so that ps displays information about what each sendmail process is responsible for doing).[1]

[1] The -c flag causes ps to print the name of the command stored in the kernel. This approach is also substantially faster than the standard ps, and is more suitable for use with scripts that run periodically. Unfortunately, the ps -c display does not include the arguments of each command that is running.

B.1.2.2 Listing processes with versions of Unix derived from BSD, including Linux

With Berkeley Unix and Linux, you can use the command:[2]

[2] Traditionally, the command ps -aux was used, but the ps command included with many distributions of Linux now gives an error if the hyphen (-) is supplied.

% ps auxww

to display detailed information about every process running on your computer.

The options specified in this command are:


Lists all processes


Displays the information in a user-oriented style


Includes information on processes that do not have controlling ttys


Includes the complete command lines, even if they run past 132 columns

For example:[3]

[3] Many Berkeley-derived versions also show a start time (START) between STAT and TIME. GNU ps, which is included with Linux, actually supports BSD-style arguments (such as auxww) and SVR4-style arguments (such as -ef), as well as others.

% ps -auxww
simsong   1996 62.6  0.6 1136 1000 q8 R      0:02 ps auxww
root       111  0.0  0.0   32   16 ?  I      1:10 /etc/biod 4
daemon     115  0.0  0.1  164  148 ?  S      2:06 /etc/syslog
root       103  0.0  0.1  140  116 ?  I      0:44 /etc/portmap
root       116  0.0  0.5  860  832 ?  I     12:24 /etc/mountd -i -s
root       191  0.0  0.2  384  352 ?  I      0:30 /usr/etc/bin/lpd
root        73  0.0  0.3  528  484 ?  S <    7:31 /usr/etc/ntpd -n
root         4  0.0  0.0    0    0 ?  I      0:00 tpathd
root         3  0.0  0.0    0    0 ?  R      0:00  idleproc
root         2  0.0  0.0 4096    0 ?  D      0:00  pagedaemon
root       239  0.0  0.1  180  156 co I      0:00  std.9600 console 
root         0  0.0  0.0    0    0 ?  D      0:08  swapper
root       178  0.0  0.3  700  616 ?  I      6:31 /etc/snmpd
root       174  0.0  0.1  184  148 ?  S      5:06 /etc/inetd
root       168  0.0  0.0   56   44 ?  I      0:16 /etc/cron
root       132  0.0  0.2  452  352 co I      0:11 /usr/etc/lockd
jdavis     383  0.0  0.1  176   96 p0 I      0:03 rlogin hymie
ishii     1985  0.0  0.1  284  152 q1 S      0:00 /usr/ucb/mail bl
root     26795  0.0  0.1  128   92 ?  S      0:00 timed
root     25728  0.0  0.0  136   56 t3 I      0:00 telnetd
jdavis     359  0.0  0.1  540  212 p0 I      0:00 -tcsh (tcsh)
root       205  0.0  0.1  216  168 ?  I      0:04 /usr/local/cap/atis
kkarahal 16296  0.0  0.4 1144  640 ?  I      0:00 emacs 
root       358  0.0  0.0  120   44 p0 I      0:03 rlogind
root     26568  0.0  0.0    0    0 ?  Z      0:00 <exiting>
root     10862  0.0  0.1  376  112 ?  I      0:00 rshd

The fields in this output are summarized in Table B-2. Individual STAT characters are summarized in Tables Table B-3, Table B-4, and Table B-5.

Table B-2. Fields in ps output (Berkeley-derived)




Username of the process. If the process has a UID (described in the next section) that does not appear in /etc/passwd, the UID is printed instead.[4]


Process's identification number.


Percentage of the system's CPU and memory that the process is using.


Amount of virtual memory that the process is using.


Resident set size of the process, i.e., the amount of physical memory that the process is occupying.


Terminal that is controlling the process.


Field denoting the status of the process; up to three letters (four under SunOS) are shown.


CPU time used by the process.


Name of the command (and arguments).

[4] If this happens, follow up to be sure that you don't have an intruder.

Table B-3. Runnability of process (first letter of STAT field)




Actually running or runnable.


Sleeping (sleeping > 20 seconds).


Idle (sleeping < 20 seconds).






In page wait.


In disk wait. Processes in this state are waiting for hardware to become available and cannot be interrupted.


Zombie. A zombie is a defunct child process that has exited and expects to report its status back to its parent, but whose parent has not called wait( ) to collect the status and "reap" the child process. When the parent of a zombie exits, the init process reaps any remaining zombies. Zombies take up an entry in the process table, but no other resources.

Table B-4. Status of process swapping (second letter of STAT field)




In memory (often referred to as "in core")


Swapped out


Process that has exceeded a soft limit on memory requirements

Table B-5. Status of processes running with altered CPU schedules (third letter of STAT field)




Process is running at a low priority


nice (a number greater than 0)


Process is running at a high priority

B.1.3 Process Properties

The kernel maintains a set of properties for every Unix process. Most of these properties are denoted by numbers. Some of these numbers refer to processes, while others determine what privileges the processes have.

B.1.3.1 Process identification numbers (PIDs)

Every process is assigned a unique number called the process identifier, or PID. The first process to run, called init, is given the number 1. Process numbers can range from 1 to 65,535.[5] When the kernel runs out of process numbers, it recycles them. The kernel guarantees that no two active processes will ever have the same number.

[5] Some versions of Unix may allow process numbers in a different range.

B.1.3.2 Process real and effective UIDs

Every Unix process has two user identifiers: a real UID and an effective UID.[6]

[6] And sometimes more: POSIX defines a saved user ID, and Linux adds a filesystem UID (FSUID). An excellent paper explaining these identifiers is Cho, Wagner, and Dean's "Setuid Demystified" (http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~daw/papers/setuid-usenix02.pdf).

The real UID (RUID) is the actual user identifier (UID) of the entity (usually a person, but possibly a daemon service such as mail) that is running the program. It is usually the same as the UID of the actual person who is logged into the computer, sitting in front of the terminal (or workstation).

The effective UID (EUID) identifies the actual privileges of the process that is running.

Normally, the real UID and the effective UID are the same. That is, you have only the privileges associated with your own UID. Sometimes, however, the real and effective UIDs can be different. This occurs when a user runs a special kind of program called a SUID program. SUID programs are often used to accomplish specific functions that require extra privileges (such as changing the user's password). SUID programs are described in Chapter 5.

B.1.3.3 Process priority and niceness

Although Unix is a multitasking operating system, most computers that run Unix can run only a single process at a time.[7] Every fraction of a second, the Unix operating system rapidly switches between many different processes so that each one gets a little bit of work done within a given amount of time. A tiny but important part of the Unix kernel called the process scheduler decides which process is allowed to run at any given moment and how much CPU time that process should get.

[7] Multiprocessor computers can run as many processes at a time as they have processors.

To calculate which process it should run next, the scheduler computes the priority of every process. The process with the lowest priority number (the highest priority) runs. A process's priority is determined with a complex formula that includes what the process is doing and how much CPU time the process has already consumed. A special number called the nice number, or simply the nice, biases this calculation: the lower a process's nice number, the higher its calculated priority, and the more likely that it will be run. Put another way, the nicer the program, the less time it expects (and gets) from the kernel.

On most versions of Unix, nice numbers are limited to being -20 to +20. Most processes have a nice of 0. A process with a nice number of +19 will probably not run until the system is almost completely idle; likewise, a process with a nice number of -19 will probably preempt every other user process on the system.

Sometimes, you will want to make a process run slower. In some cases, processes take more than their "fair share" of the CPU, but you don't want to kill them outright. An example is a program that a researcher left running overnight to perform mathematical calculations that hasn't finished the next morning. In this case, rather than killing the process and forcing the researcher to restart it later from the beginning, you could simply cut the amount of CPU time that the process is getting and let it finish slowly during the day. The program /etc/renice lets you change a process's niceness.

For example, suppose that Simson left a program running before he went home. Now it's late at night, and Simson's program is taking up most of the computer's CPU time:

% ps aux | head -5
% ps ux
simsong 20655 82.2  0.3  1712 1304  p1  S+    1:34AM 343:48.71 rsync -avz --rsh=ssh
/raid4/project g3:/usr/bak
simsong 20656 11.3  0.3  2548 1688  p1  R+    1:34AM  62:55.55 ssh g3 rsync --server -
vlogDtprz . /usr/bak
spaf    86311  0.0  0.2  1440 1036  p1  Is   Fri05PM   0:00.23 -tcsh (tcsh)
spaf    91856  0.0  1.0  8412 5272  p1  T    Fri11PM   0:00.88 emacs .
beth     5643  0.0  0.2  1436 1036  p3  Ss   Sat08AM   0:00.21 -tcsh (tcsh)

You could slow down Simson's program by renicing it to a higher nice number.

For security reasons, normal users are only allowed to increase the nice numbers of their own processes. Only the superuser can lower the nice number of a process or raise the nice number of somebody else's process. (Fortunately, in this example we know the superuser password!)

% /bin/su
password: another39

# /etc/renice +4 20655
20655: old priority 0, new priority 4 
# ps 20655
simsong 20655 65.2  0.3  1712 1304  p1  RN+   1:34AM 343:48.71 rsync -avz --rsh=ssh 
/raid4/project g3:/usr/bak

The N in the STAT field indicates that the rsync process is now running at a lower priority (it is "niced"). Notice that the process's CPU consumption has already decreased. Any new processes that are spawned by the process with PID 20655 will inherit this new nice value, too.

You can also use /etc /renice to lower the nice number of a process to make it finish faster.[8] Although setting a process to a lower priority won't speed up the CPU or make your computer's hard disk transfer data faster, a negative nice number will cause Unix to run a particular process more than it runs others on the system. Of course, if you ran every process with the same negative priority, there wouldn't be any apparent benefit.

[8] Only root can renice a process to make it faster. Normal processes can't even change themselves back to what they were (if they've been niced down), and normal users can't raise the priority of their processes.

Some versions of the renice command allow you to change the nice of all processes belonging to a user or all processes in a process group (described in the next section). For instance, to speed up all of Simson's processes, you might type:

# renice -2 -u simsong

Remember: processes with a lower nice number run faster.

Note that because of the Unix scheduling system, renicing several processes to lower numbers is likely to increase paging activity if there is limited physical memory, and therefore adversely impact overall system performance.

What do process priority and niceness have to do with security? If an intruder has broken into your system and you have contacted the authorities and are tracing the phone call, slowing down the intruder with a priority of +10 or +15 will limit the damage that the intruder can do without hanging up the phone (and losing your chance to catch the intruder). Of course, any time that an intruder is on a system, exercise extreme caution.

Also, running your own shell with a higher priority may give you an advantage if the system is heavily loaded. The easiest way to do so is by typing:

# renice -5 $$

The shell will replace the $$ with the PID of the shell's process.

B.1.3.4 Process groups and sessions

With Berkeley-derived versions of Unix, including SVR4, each process is assigned a process ID (PID), a process group ID, and a session ID. Process groups and sessions are used to implement job control.

For each process, the PID is a unique number, the process group ID is the PID of the process group leader process, and the session ID is the PID of the session leader process. When a process is created, it inherits the process group ID and the session ID of its parent process. Any process may create a new process group by calling setpgrp( ) and may create a new session by calling the Unix system call setsid( ). All processes that have the same process group ID are said to be in the same process group.

Each Unix process group belongs to a session group. This is used to help manage signals and orphaned processes. Once a user has logged in, the user may start multiple sets of processes, or jobs, using the shell's job control mechanism. A job may have a single process, such as a single invocation of the ls command. Alternatively, a job may have several processes, such as a complex shell pipeline. For each of these jobs, there is a process group. Unix also keeps track of the particular process group that is controlling the terminal. This can be set or changed with ioctl( ) system calls. Only the controlling process group can read or write to the terminal.

A process could become an orphan if its parent process exits but it continues to run. Historically, these processes would be inherited by the init process but would remain in their original process group. If a signal were sent by the controlling terminal (process group), then it would go to the orphaned process, even though it no longer had any real connection to the terminal or the rest of the process group.

To counter this situation, POSIX defines an orphaned process group. This is a process group in which the parent of every member either is not a member of the process group's session or is itself a member of the same process group. Orphaned process groups are not sent terminal signals when they are generated. Because of the way in which new sessions are created, the initial process in the first process group is always an orphan (its ancestor is not in the session). Command interpreters are usually spawned as session leaders, so they ignore TSTP signals from the terminal.

B.1.4 Creating Processes

A Unix process can create a new process with the fork( ) system function.[9] fork( ) makes an identical copy of the calling process, with the exception that one process is identified as the parent or parent process , while the other is identified as the child or child process.

[9] fork is really a family of system calls. There are several variants of the fork call, depending on the version of Unix that is being used, including the vfork( ) call, special calls to create a traced process, and calls to create a thread.

Note the following differences between child and parent:

  • They have different PIDs.

  • They have different PPIDs (parent PIDs).

  • Accounting information is reset for the child.

  • They each have their own copy of the file descriptors.

  • Each has its own unique program counter register value.

  • Usually, each has its own memory space, although the child's is a copy of the parent's immediately after the fork( ).

The exec family of system functions lets a process change the program that it is running. This is equivalent to replacing the contents of memory, resetting the stack and register, and jumping to the start location of the program. Processes terminate when they call the _exit system function or when they generate an exception, e.g., an attempt to use an illegal instruction or address an invalid region of memory.

Unix uses special programs called shells (/bin/ksh, /bin/sh, and /bin/csh are all common shells) to read commands from the user and run other programs. The shell runs other programs by first executing one of the fork family of instructions to create a near-duplicate second process; the second process then uses one of the exec family of calls to run a new program, while the first process waits until the second process finishes. This technique is used to run virtually every program in Unix, from small programs such as /bin/ls to large programs such as Emacs.

If all of the processes on the system suddenly die (or exit), the computer would be unusable because there would be no way to start a new process. In practice, this scenario never occurs for reasons we'll describe later.

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